North Korean Lit – Diaspora in a Circus Mirror? A Reader Responds

The Man in the Mirror

The Men in the Mirror

For the second time in a few days, something has popped up in comments that deserves some attention on the main page. Charles (the regular commenter) had a strong reaction to my posts on North Korean literature, and so, I have brought it up to the main page. As usual, my responses are italicized. While I disagree with Charles, I think it is only fair to post his comment, as it represents a well-researched opinion.

Your critique of DPRK literature is too harsh.

Sure, in a rigidly totalitarian state, much of it is unreadable love stories in which a young man falls in love with a tractor and the teachings of the Eternal President.

But, not all of it is.

Here is a piece in English translation that is readable:

This is quite readable, but it suffers from the same didactic flaw that I find in most North Korean literature – it is a one-sided affair attempting to put a nice face on North Korea. This, of course, happens in South Korean literature as well, but you can also find literature in which the author is explicitly exploring, often attacking, the status quo. In this work the westerner is “cunning” the Korean friend “simple minded” (in an honest peasanty way) and it is the narrator’s sad job to try to make sure the bigoted westerner does not misinterpret the triumph of Juche. This reminds me of early women’s fiction in Korea, in which the model of the “modern woman” was set up against straw opponents, who the author always undercut in writing, and whom the heroine always neatly despatched.

Passages like the following just send me away hooting:

Our socialist fatherland is under siege from global imperialism. In the midst of all this, our nation suffered an enormous trauma, as the Great Leader, the founder of socialist Korea, left our side. And from that point for several years in a row we have suffered destructive natural disasters, as though nature itself had formed an alliance with the imperialists and their policy to isolate and choke us with a blockade.

And Epstein’s sidebar comment reveals the problem:
He [The author] was eventually taken to Pyongyang to be trained and to become a writer in the employ of the state (as all professional writers are).

And what about the novel Hwangjini, by Hong Seok-jung referred to in this interview: ??


This work won in 2004 an ROK literary prize:

That’s actually much more interesting to me, particularly since it won the Manhae prize and was apparently turned into a massively successful drama (a lot of historical Korean literature has received this treatment, e.g. Hong Gildong). Still, as one of your links notes, this is a ‘safe’ topic for a state-sponsored author, as it is historical love-story.

And this:

references some works as well.

I’ll see what of that can be tracked down.

Additionally, what about graphic novels in the DPRK, like this one:

That also looks interesting, but shares the common flaw of being a primarily ideological (and again, I’ll say state-sponsored) work:

The two heroes of Blizzard in the Jungle are North Korean doctors whose surnames are both Kim, making them stand-ins for Kim Il-sung (the Great Leader) and his son, Kim Jong-il (the Dear Leader). They are cast as the rescuers of a multiracial group that elects one of the Kims as their leader for his virtuous qualities. He directs them in what appears to be a doomed endeavor, going contrary to the apparent common sense of thee Americans in the group. (In the end, this strategy—symbolic of ascending Norrth (sic) Korea’s Mt. Paekdu, the mythic birthplace of their leader—turns out to be the better plan, and the selfish Americans meet an appropriately gruesome fate.)

I would also suggest that the DPRK leading literary magazine Choson Munhak [] I am sure has some good stuff, even if much of it is propagandistic drivel.

That I would love to see… my understanding is that it is difficult to access while in Korea.

Also, looking at the Wikipedia page on North Korean literature, I have to shudder at descriptions such as:

Kang Kwi-mi’s short story “A Tale of Music”, published in Choson Munhak in February 2003, tells the tale of a young Zainichi Korean who discovers he is skilled at playing the trombone, moves to North Korea, and relinquishes music in favour of stonemasonry. His passion for the “music” of stones is caused by the greatness of Kim Jong-il as expressed through stone monuments.


Finally, I read some DPRK works in Russian translation, and they were not all bad.

I would note that some works like military action novels, certain mysteries, science fiction are need not necessarily be that different the world round.

Yes, of course the DPRK can ruin any work through the insertion of endless turgid prose, but not every work is like that.

For a list of some works in Russian translation:

(I have elided this, which you can see in the comments on the original post. Russian translation of Korean lit isn’t my thing – partly because I can’t read Russian^^ – so I don’t discuss it here)

Anyway.. interesting discussion, and different people obviously find different value in national literatures. My basic feeling, and I haven’t seen any North Korean fiction to contradict it, is that state-sponsored literature is likely to be bad, even if the authors fully believe in what they are writing, because the process of getting into such a state-sponsored position is going to naturally limit styles, narrative structure, plot choices, pretty much the whole shebang.

YMMV, of course, and I appreciate the considered response.

2 thoughts on “North Korean Lit – Diaspora in a Circus Mirror? A Reader Responds

  1. Good response.

    Let me consider.

    As to availability of DPRK lit, there appears to be quite a collection at Seoul University library.

    Does that work?

    Do you have access to that library?

    As to a point that you make:

    “that state-sponsored literature is likely to be bad”

    ** true **

    But I have 2 additional thoughts on that.

    1) There is an irony, is there not, in that the KLTI is a governmental entity that through translation would in effect be sponsoring the publication of works (in translation) by reducing or eliminating the cost of translation?

    That is why I think that it is so important that actual foreign publishers play a much larger role in the selection of works by KLTI, rather than simply having an opaque process of selection of works to be translated.

    Foreign publishers are in the best position to know what will actually be read, rather than bureaucrats in Seoul.

    2) Yes, it IS likely to be bad, but that does NOT mean that every single work will be bad.

    It is a bit like saying that the winters are likely to be cold in Korea, which does not mean that every single day is cold all day.

    Not every poem in the DPRK is a paean to the Kim dynasty; some are just love poems. Admittedly, writers there do have to crank out a great deal of drivel as a price to be paid in order to be allowed to publish other stuff.

    But, as the translation by the DPRK of “Diary of Anne Frank” shows, DPRK knows that its readers and its translators and literary class want access to more than just endless propaganda, and have to satisfy that demand to some degree.

    I will consider your thoughts more and likely have more thoughts.

  2. Here a few more thoughts:

    Your note rightly points out that historical love stories are a safe topic.

    Indeed, DPRK even has in translation “Gone with the Wind”

    And, based on the example of Stalinist Russia, I would feel confident that man vs. nature stories like those of Jack London are safe.

    And, many types of military action novels are safe, the equivalent of stories about Audy Murphy.

    Plus, spy novels (like those of Robert Ludlum) are likely fine (with the good and bad sides reversed of course).

    And simple, very chaste romance stories, like those of Guy de Maupasant (which is available in DPRK in translation) are okay.

    And humorous reflections on parenthood are okay.

    And animal tales are okay (like Lassie, etc.)

    And many mysteries are okay

    Those actually include the bulk of books read in the West.

    Very, very few readers in the West read novels or literature that critically examine underlying hypocrisy or flaws in society, government, or the world.

    And, not many such books (as a result) are sold.

    Are ROK readers that different? Really?

    After a day at a car dealership, does a Jeju island car salesman really read such works?

    You rightly say that ROK has intellectual freedom that DPRK does not.

    But, you also say too flippantly (I think) regarding DPRK works that they are a “one-sided affair attempting to put a nice face on North Korea”:

    You add

    “This, of course, happens in South Korean literature as well, but you can also find literature in which the author is explicitly exploring, often attacking, the status quo.”

    I would ask:

    Do ROK readers really read police procedural mysteries in which the policeman fails to solve the crime, due to budget cutbacks, bureaucratic ineptitude, or stupidity?

    Do ROK readers really read love stories in which the couple cement their love and devote their lives to attacking the status quo in ROK, as sign of their unshakeable fidelity to the ideal of democratic inquiry?


    Is there really a kind of ROK ‘capitalist realist’ literature mirroring the socialist realist style in DPRK?

    I think that you too blithely dismiss the many instances in which “This, of course, happens in South Korean literature as well”, but I would hazard a guess that those probably constitute the bulk of books read and sold in ROK.

    And, myself as someone interested in publishing books that are read by the largest possible audience, I would say that ‘high brow’ literature is great and important, but middle and low brow literature should not be so insouciantly dismissed out of hand.

    Most readers read to experience emotions – love, happiness, suspense, etc. and to have those emotions ultimately be resolved in a pleasant way.

    Few readers read in order to think a great deal, they read to undergo an emotional journey.

    Surely, the Seoul cubicle office worker does not after a busy day read a mystery so as to learn how her society has failed her?

    And, readers read to ultimately be uplifted, not to be depressed or unhappy or angry. They read to experience happy endings.

    And, I am not even touching into poetry, for which my case is even stronger – because the (very few) poetry readers are always reading for emotion and sensation – not for trenchant analyses of societal failure or discources on the reasons why the status quo failed.

    Readers read to escape their daily cares, and I cannot believe that ROK readers are that different.

    So, yes, ROK does and it is a glorious thing have intellectual freedom, and that is manifested in its literature.

    But, honestly, most readers most of the time want a book to curl up with and escape.



    For your radio show, what about an interview with this award winning literary expert on DPRK literature?

    With Skype, the phone interview could be free.

    Or, more locally, what about a discussion with former DPRK writer Chang Hae-song who now works at Han-yang University’s Institute of Unification Policy about DPRK lit?

    And, speaking of non-ROK Korean literature, what about Chinese Korean Literature?

    Books do exist
    that feature Korean lit from China.

    There is a literary monthly in Korean from China, as well as novels, etc.

    This strand of Korean lit dates back for a century
    and remains vibrant.

    This university:

    is developing a “ Research Center of Korean Literature in China” and a “ Center of Research in the Contrast between DPRK Literature and ROK Literature”

    Seems like a discussion with them might be interesting as well.

    And Yanbian University has a program on Korean literature.

    What about contacting someone there?

    It just seems like a discussion on Korean literature has to include all Korean language literature.

    In short, though clearly ROK is where the heart of the action is, I think a good, comprehensive discussion has to include DPRK and China as well.

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